LAWRENCE, Kan. — Todd Orlando and the Texas defense put together another noteworthy outing in a 24-17 win over Kansas. It won’t go down in the record books as an effort for ages, but the Longhorns punching their ticket to the Dr. Pepper Big 12 Football Championship by holding the Jayhawks to 296 total yards, 88 of which came on two touchdowns in the fourth quarter after Texas built a 21-0 lead through the first 45 minutes of action.
The performance was Orlando’s stoppers put together without the services of arguably their best player with linebacker Gary Johnson serving a suspension for a violation of team rules. Johnson made the trip to Lawrence with the Longhorns and stood on the sideline wearing his game jersey over a hoodie as he served his suspension, one Tom Herman said following the win over the Jayhawks won’t prevent Johnson from facing Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game next Saturday at AT&T Stadium (11 a.m., ABC).
“It’s a one-game thing,” Herman said.
Not having Johnson on the field manning his Rover position meant the Longhorns played the regular-season finale without their leading tackler. Heading into the Kansas game, Johnson’s 74 tackles led all Texas defenders, as did his 14 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.
Only Charles Omenihu recorded more sacks than the 5.5 tallied by Johnson through the first 11 games of the season. Johnson recorded a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in a campaign that’s probably going to lead to All-Big 12 honors in some way, shape or form when the league-wide honors are announced.
The Longhorns need Johnson’s speed and athleticism on the field with quarterback Kyler Murray and the Sooners standing between Texas and the program’s first conference championship since 2009. Although he only recorded three tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss in a 48-45 win over Oklahoma on Oct. 6, Johnson played a huge role as one of the defenders responsible for spying Murray, a strategy used by Orlando that played a large role in the Longhorns building a 45-24 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Through three quarters the Longhorns held the Sooners to 353 total yards with Murray throwing for 245 yards on a 15-of-20 passing performance to that point with three touchdown passes. What made the difference in the outcome was the Texas defense holding Oklahoma scoreless in the third quarter by forcing two drives to end on a punt.
The third failed drive was a one-play series, a fumble by Murray when he put on the ground while trying to catch his balance. Breckyn Hager recovered the loose ball and Sam Ehlinger needed only five plays to cover 23 yards and get the offense in the end zone when he took the ball across the goal line himself on a 2-yard touchdown.
Jeffrey McCulloch is coming off of a career afternoon in the win over Kansas (three tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble and an interception he returned 65 yards to set up a Cameron Dicker field goal) and Anthony Wheeler has played well the last two weeks (11 tackles, one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss in the aforementioned span). Joseph Ossai had five tackles in his first career start in the Kansas win after notching three tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble in the team’s 24-10 win over Iowa State on Nov. 17.
That said, the Longhorns don’t have anyone in the linebacker room with Johnson’s range and athleticism. Having Johnson back on the field alongside Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster — both of whom have regained their early-season form — will give Orlando the kind of horses he needs to be able to run with the Sooners.